An epiphany struck me last year on one of the bright, breezy days between Christmas and New Year's Eve, when our great friends Wendy and Will were visiting from Colorado. While our wives were at Gringo Jones, our sleeping one-year-olds were keeping me and Will home all afternoon. But the weather was making us stir-crazy, the way warmish winter days do.
Finally Will offered up the timeless phrase, the phrase that has oft been the initiator to set bodies in motion: Wanna hack?
Now let's back up a dozen or so years. Beginning when I was in high school, I've been fascinated by the act of engaging in the activity (sport? game? phenomenon?) of hacky sack. In school, we'd race through lunch so we could spend the remainder of the lunch period hacking out in the school patio area. If it took five minutes to eat, that was too long, so two-fisted eating was in vogue for the after-lunch patio hackers. (One time, in fact, I was devouring my lunch so voraciously that I began to laugh and ended up with pizza crust lodged in a nasal cavity, but that's a whole different story.)
It began with just three of us me, Jeremy, and Josh...then we grew to four, five, and six Bryan, Sam, and Johnny. We'd be joined at times by the occasional passerby, other friends, sometimes non-friends, Mr. Snow the shop teacher, Marty the VW-bus-driving custodian, and when we were lucky, a girl or two. (Now here's the thing about girls and hacky sacks: I can't explain it, but if a girl joined the circle and could keep up, she automatically had a special place in all of our hearts, and she'd probably acquire a crush or two on top of it.)
What's cool is that it never mattered who joined us; we always had a great time. We could have a nerd, a jock, a developmentally disabled kid, a guy with a mullet, a pot-head drop-out type, and a teacher in our circle, taking turns kicking ferociously, at times laughing big, but always working together to keep the thing aloft.
Sometimes the errant kick or gust of wind would land the sack on top of the low roof. If Marty was with us, he'd get a ladder and bring it to one of us in class. But if he wasn't around, we were on our own. One Friday, after three or four hacky sacks had gone the way of the wind, four of us decided we'd come back to school that night dressed in black and on a mission. The following Monday we had a pile of hacky sacks and bragging rights to go along with them.
Fast-forward to college and life in Colorado. After having moved 800 miles to a place where no one knew my name, I soon found myself starting or joining in on pick-up games of hacky sack just to get acquainted with some folks in my small college. Some of these relationships existed only within the hack circle, but others would go well beyond. And although I can't say I met my wife while playing hacky sack, watching her red hair flying and black Vans kicking away (mind you, she could "keep up" and then some) tremendously fortified my crush on her in the early days.
We used to play pick-up games around campus, at parks, and outside people's apartments. One of my more memorable hacking experiences was on a Sunday afternoon at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. We were hacking near the top of the amphitheatre, well above the seating area, and another few people were hacking in the stage area at the bottom. The impeccable acoustics of the place carried their casual conversation and the "chk, chk, chk" of their hacky sack beads hundreds of feet up the giant-step seating to us as if they were directly next to us.
Amazingly, both while my wife and I were dating and after getting married, we had some couple-friends who shared our enjoyment in hacky sack Jeremy and Rachel, Wendy and Will and, possibly not coincidentally, they became our closest friends.
Fast-forward to last December and my epiphany: light breeze, fifty degrees, cloudless. We started out in jackets and finished in short sleeves; my temples were damp and my cheeks flushed like a grade-schooler coming back to class after recess. Our wives were shopping, our children were sleeping, and we were playing like schoolboys, like we had no responsibilities, no jobs to get back to, no flights to catch back home. Will and I were reliving childhood, youth, and the college years right there on the concrete slab in my South City backyard, under the auspices of the St. Joan of Arc, in all her mosaic-tile splendor.
That's the day I had the epiphany: That throughout most of my life, for nearly all of my best and longest-lasting friendships, I can say one thing I have spent a considerable amount of time standing in small circles, sharing pulled muscles and hearty laughs, and kicking a sack full of beads with these people.
* * *
Footbag. Hacky sack. Whatever you choose to call it, the activity brings out a sense of instant fun and instant community. Think about it: complete strangers coming together for a common goal, and that is to keep the footbag in the air. In nearly every circle I've participated in, the goal is to achieve a "hack," whereby the footbag makes its way to each player in the circle at least once. As you can imagine, the larger the circle, the more difficult it becomes.
Although playing well takes patience and practice, the rules are simple and few. Basically, keep the footbag aloft using any part of your body except your hands and arms. Hacky-sack etiquette stipulates that when serving, the player must not serve to him/herself. Adding to that from personal experience, please, please, please serve with a hand-toss unless you can successfully serve with your foot nine times out of ten.
Once you get the hang of playing, try "stalling" the footbag on your head, chest, foot, shoulder, knee, or back. Or, try some variations or attempt to set a record. But no matter where or with whom you play, play to have fun and you might just acquire a crush or make a few friends as a by-product.
Paul Caudell, a 13-year hacky sack enthusiast, is somehow still short on skill yet long on fun in a hack circle.